On my way here today I was struck by the number and variety of countries advertising themselves as holiday destinations around London. One thing really stood out, that Kurdistan was nowhere to be seen among them. That is why I am so happy to have been invited here today. To discuss what can be done to make sure that Kurdistan lives up to its potential as a leading tourist destination.
I want to talk about three key areas that should be focused on to make this a reality. What Kurdistan can already offer a potential tourist, how the tourist industry could be expanded and the infrastructure needed to facilitate such a change. Most of us here already know just how much Kurdistan has to offer the world. But this is knowledge that Kurdistan has to share.
Whenever I return I am struck by the region’s natural beauty, its mountains, ravines, waterfalls and water springs. Indeed, it’s a landscape that has long been famed in Middle Eastern literature for just these things.
Now Kurdistan has to ensure this landscape is what people think of when they hear about the region. We need to change the perceptions held by many based on images of Southern Iraq.
But even this is not the best-selling point for the area. It is Kurdistan’s history that will be the real draw. For example, Erbil is not only a vibrant and metropolitan capital but is a historical site in itself. It is a contender for the world’s oldest continuously inhabited city, dating back around 8000 years. At its heart the Hawler Citadel: an iconic image of historic Kurdistan.
Less than two hours drive away, close to Jerwana and Mar Matti is the sight of the famous battle of Gaugamela. Fought between Alexander the Great and King Darius and leading to the fall of Persian Empire.
Elsewhere in the region a tourist could explore Parastaga Zardashtm the recently discovered ancient temple in Duhok Province. They could visit Amadiya, a 4000 year old town perched on a mountain’s peak, to see its Assryian ruins and the rumoured home of the Biblical three wise men.
Then there are the ancient caves of Shanidar and Gondik. The first of which is the earliest ceremonial burial site ever discovered, the later has cave carvings dating from 3000 BC that would rival any in Europe.
With this history Kurdistan should already be a tourist hub in the region. It should be competing with some of the World’s most visited sites. Let me give you some comparisons: Jordan’s ancient City of Petra is 4000 years younger than Erbil’s Citadel but saw 500,000 people visit it in the last recorded year 2007.
The religious sites in Jerusalem, Bethlehem and around the Middle East are some of the most visited places on earth, and yet Amadiya is largely unknown.
While in France the famous cave paintings at Lascaux saw over 1000 visitors a day before restrictions were put in place to protect them, numbers that could be emulated in Gondik.
With these sites and with its landscape Kurdistan already has more than most countries to attract tourists. The important thing is to expand public knowledge of them.
Attracting people to see its wonderful history is important but Kurdistan can offer more. That is why I believe Kurdistan should also be focusing on making itself a high end and adventure holiday destination as well.
A quick look at a travel brochure of the region shows how well other states have done in attracting high end holiday makers. Kurdistan should be doing the same.
In neighbouring Kuwait tourists now flock to the capital. The famous Kuwait Towers are the centre point of a modern city which advertises itself as a luxury destination. The city has attracted high end international hotel chains, including Hilton, Intercontinental and a Four Seasons. New malls have also been built and this has led to booming tourism and business.
Similar scenes are being repeated in Oman, with Muscat recently voted the Second Best City to visit in the world in 2012 by Lonely Planet. Tourism in Oman has grown considerably recently, and it is expected to become one of the largest industries in the nation. This is due to a focus on high end hotels, shopping malls and high end activities. Of course Abu Dhabi and Dubai are two other obvious examples of success in this area of tourism.
I firmly believe that by looking at these examples Kurdistan could compete in this area as well.
With the recent success in the Oil and Gas sector, the opening of the new International Airport in Erbil and the ever improving security in the country the time is right for investment in this area.
The same applies for adventure holidays. Kurdistan’s mountains and rivers have the potential to offer skiing, river rafting and other adventurous sports. While the landscape itself lends itself to hiking, biking and running.
Again Jordan shows how this can be a success. The Deserts of Wadi Rum have become one of Jordan’s important tourist destinations. They attract climbers, trekkers, camel and horse riders and other tourists.
By focusing on these two tourist areas in addition to the history and culture of the region I believe Kurdistan could become a regional leader in tourism. To do so investment will be needed but Kurdistan is well placed to gain this.
The third and perhaps most important area that needs to be addressed is the infrastructure needed for the tourist sector to grow.
Much of this is obvious and I am pleased to see some infrastructure is already under way. The international airports recently opened will be the gateway to the region. However it is important that Kurdistan works hard to attract international airlines and direct links with key nations.
I am currently helping to try and achieve just this with the Department for Transport and Airlines here in the UK and hope we will soon be successful.
Obviously my earlier suggestions would require international hotels to be attracted to the region, but it would also be important to ensure a mix of accommodation for tourists and a way to rate them. Telecommunications, training in the hospitality industry, branding and marketing are all areas that would also need to be invested in.
On a basic level everyday things such as signs for tourists would need to be erected. Tour guides trained and information easily accessible at major transport hubs and cities.
All of this would be necessary to ensure that Kurdistan’s beauty and heritage is accessible to the international tourist whether they are from Seattle, Seville or Stratford-upon-Avon.
This would take time and energy but it is these areas that would lead to tourists visiting the region.
I know from my own constituency that to attract tourists takes time and energy. For example even a historic town and home of Shakespeare such as Stratford requires change. A new Theatre building and railway station are just two projects completed in the last three years, and more will come.
But this form of investment is needed to become a success. And I believe Kurdistan would be a success. Kurdistan’s natural beauty, history and ability to change with the times are all huge assets in the competitive arena of international tourism. That is why the next time I come to speak to this conference I hope that on my way it will be posters of Kurdistan that greet me throughout London.